- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2008


Fordham University Press

$24.95, 241 pages, illus.


“There is no new thing to be said of the mountains, or of the sea, or of the stars,” observed Homer Hock, guest speaker at the 1920 annual Lincoln Dinner. He also remarked (and this was 88 years ago), “There is no new thing to be said of Lincoln.” Perhaps not. Yet there still are clever and informative ways to study the 16th president.

Hop aboard the Clio (the Muse of history) car for a delightful 241-page Lincoln road trip through the District, Elvis is not the only American superstar with a ton of impersonators.

During the Civil War, Lincoln said if there was a place worse than hell, he was in it. Almost a 1 1/2 centuries later, he’s everywhere. Roads, banks and schools, stamps, money, cities, a tunnel, an automobile, an insurance company and much more herald his name and image.

In the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to America, at least 191 are dedicated to the man who (as of February) came along 200 years ago.

In “Summers With Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments,” James A. Percoco intrepidly explores the past to share the history of how seven of these monuments came to be, what they meant to their sculptors and the public at their unveilings and what they mean to us today.

Where history, politics and creativity meet is where you can reflect upon these artistic images in bronze. The word monument comes from Latin (“to remind”) and means “thought object” in German. The question of whether there is a right or wrong way to portray these thought objects has provoked intense debate and controversy. How should they look, and what happens when the sculptor’s idea doesn’t match the public’s?

Most of the artists commanded effusive praise for their aesthetics, but one sculptor received the equivalent of a sharp poke in the eye. The hostility heaped upon Cincinnati’s Lytle Park almost makes the reader wince. Lincoln’s son Robert said Barnard had a “screw loose” for coming up with such a “grotesque likeness” and “beastly thing.”

The New York Times described the work as “a long-suffering peasant,” and the editor of Art World characterized it as “a calamity and an atrocity” that made Lincoln look like a “stooped-shouldered, consumptive-chested, chimpanzee-headed, lumpy-footed, giraffe-necked, grimy-fingered clod-hopper.” Simply, “a mistake in bronze.”

The reason for all this? Barnard dared to make his work more real than ideal. “Art, like history,” the learned teacher instructs, “is not uncontested ground.”

Once past questions about dress and pose, the artists have to accurately depict the uniqueness of Lincoln’s face, the off-center alignment of his nose and the fact that the right side of his face was more relaxed than the left.

One of the sculptors thought Lincoln knew he looked better from the right side. Whether he knew or cared seems doubtful. When accused of being two-faced, the man whose countenance graces Mount Rushmore retorted: “If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”

Mr. Percoco, who admits to hero worship, deserves extra credit for including in this wonderful book something often ignored in Lincoln studies: a recitation of some of the flaws of the lawyer, politician and lobbyist (before the term was coined).

As a lawyer, Lincoln represented a slave owner to get his “property” back; as a politician, he could, as the author notes, “be Machiavellian when he needed to be.” As president, he waffled on slavery, originally having no intention of abolishing it where it already existed. He shut down newspapers, destroyed printing presses and suspended habeas corpus.

We are warned not to elevate Lincoln to God-like status by the author, who opines that we have created “a civil religion where Lincoln emerges as one of our venerated saints.” He is loved almost everywhere. In the former Martin Luther King Jr. are the most highly regarded Americans.

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George used a few more words to come to a similar conclusion: “He is one of those giant figures, of whom there are very few in history, who lose their nationality in death. They are no longer Greek, or Hebrew, or English, or American; they belong to mankind.”

• Paul Herbert is a Fairfax writer. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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